Books / Reviews

From a public toilet to outer space, sliding in filth all the way

by Steve Finbow

In his 1989 essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” Tom Wolfe argues: “It was realism that created the ‘absorbing’ or ‘gripping’ quality that is peculiar to the novel, the quality that makes the reader feel that he has been pulled not only into the setting of the story but also into the minds and central nervous systems of the characters.” With this in mind, Wolfe called for a new “social novel.”

BROTHERS, by Yu Hua. Picador, 2010, 641 pp., £8.99 (paperback)

“Brothers” by Yu Hua pulls the reader not only into the minds and central nervous systems of Baldy Li and Song Gang (the brothers) but also into their digestive and reproductive systems. The novel is awash with blood, saliva, spit, urine, feces and bodily gases. The story begins in a public toilet and ends in ruminations on outer space — everything between seems to be included.

A blackly comical novel, “Brothers” spans the decades between Mao’s violently absurd Cultural Revolution and the neocapitalism of new China. It’s a brash Hollywood-meets-Bollywood Chinese soap opera, replete with gangsters and beauties, con artists and Communists, portraying the chaos and uncertainty of the changing face of China.

Full of violence both political and personal, the narrative follows the lives of two stepbrothers and their reaction to social change; one staying faithful to the social system only to find that it is of no help to him and the other becoming a brash mogul who has moved from cesspit to golden toilet seat. Rambunctious and vulgar, “Brothers” takes Rabelaisian satire as a blueprint for examining lives that have moved from hunger, poverty and torture to great wealth and status, culminating in Baldy Li examining hymens as a judge at a beauty contest for virgins.

Baldy Li is an exceptional character. Grotesque and primal, he embodies Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, throwing himself into the scheming world of in-your-face consumerism. He first starts making money by telling the story of how he spied on women in the local toilets and caught a glimpse of the town beauty’s buttocks. From here, he works as a factory director and as a seller of used Japanese suits.

Song Gang is a more sympathetic character, caught up in the maelstrom of social change — at one point he has breast-implant surgery to help in his career as a salesman for breast- enlargement cream — and is a perfect foil for Baldy Li’s over-the-top character.

Full of slogans and modern advertising, poetry and propaganda, “Brothers” uses social satire to investigate the absurdity, chaos and violence of 21st century life. As Tom Wolfe writes, “there is nothing you can imagine, no matter how ludicrous, that will not promptly be enacted before your very eyes, probably by someone well known.” Baldy Li embodies this claim.

Yu Hua works the emotions — for every raucous laugh, for every bawdy chuckle, there is a beating or a suicide; for every success there is an attendant failure. However much the ‘brothers’ profess they are together, the novel pulls them apart, spins them away from each other, as if Yu Hua is metaphorizing the transformation in Chinese social history from a people’s collective to a country of rampant individualism.

The novel is a picaresque social commentary, Dickensian in scope, humor, squalor and coincidence. “Brothers” will be a good friend to you and take you on a journey that is sometimes gut wrenching and sometimes stomach turning. To end with another quote from Tom Wolfe, “One of the specialities of the realist novel . . . (i)s the demonstration of the influence of society on even the most personal aspects of the life of the individual.” Exactly.